Explore: May 2011

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16 posts from May 2011


Nature Art: On the Appalachian Trail

The actual halfway point of the Appalachain Trail may lie in Pennsylvania, but through-hikers consider Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the psychological one. Two powerful rivers merge here, the Shenendoah and the Potomac, and it could be their promise and sparkle through the trees above Harpers Ferry that causes hikers to relax as they descend the 1,500 feet to the town.

In this video, Kevin Gallagher condensed his six-month through-hike, all 2,100+ miles from Georgia to Maine, into 4.5 minutes using stop-action video. Watch the video and read more about his method here.

I've hiked parts of the trail: here in Maryland, considered an easy stretch, and up in Maine, where it is exposed and very rocky. In Harpers Ferry this week, the Potomac ran brown with silt, almost five feet above flood stage. We hiked down the bluffs to the C&O Canal, paralleling the river, hoping to touch the water. On a tiny sandspit, I found these tracks:

I had tried so hard to pack lightly that I left my sketchbook behind! These sketches, the blue jay head and the red oak leaf, I made on borrowed scrap paper. In some ways, I was more relaxed as I drew because I was drawing on "scrap," not in a sketchbook. You can draw on anything--give it a try when you're out on the trail.



Year in Yosemite: Zen Garden

The neighbors. Photo credit: Nancy Casolaro.

Over the centuries, the Japanese have refined the art of the meditation garden. It usually involves a sentinel stone that symbolizes the Buddha and carefully raked smaller stones that represent everything from children to small animals to elves. So delicate and profound are the designs that these gardens are not to be entered. A bench is provided for meditation. Contemplation is the name of the game.

If you come to Yosemite National Park at this time of year, you can see Zen gardening Western style. There's nothing delicate about it. We're raking, but it's not stones and gravel being arranged to tell a story. No, this is big, brawny work that results in huge, massive piles of pine needles sitting helter skelter by the side of the road waiting for front loaders to come pick them up. If there is contemplation involved (and there is) it doesn't come from sitting and reflecting. It comes from taking action. Having a bad day? Grab a rake and go for it. The repetitive nature of the movement is sure to calm you down. Better yet, satisfaction is virtually instantaneous. It takes just minutes to pull the needles into large piles. Unfortunately, moving those piles from behind the house to the front of the house is not so satisfying. That's when another form of reflection comes in — how do I get my children to do this? Which would be more effective — the carrot or the stick?

Continue reading "Year in Yosemite: Zen Garden" »

Astronomy: Out with the Old Constellations, in with the New

5-27-11 Leo KKW
Constellation-Hop across the Sky Starting with Leo the Lion. Credit: Kelly Kizer Whitt

Depending on how bad the weather has been where you live, it may have been a while — a very long while — since you've been stargazing. From snow, rain, clouds, or temperatures just too chilly to enjoy the outdoors, the weather has kept a lot of people indoors over the past months. If the last time you remember looking up in the dark involved Orion rising in the east, then you may not recognize the stars once you head back out.

As May draws to a close and June begins, the constellations of spring are setting and those of summer are rising. In the early evening after it gets dark enough for the dimmer stars to appear, look to the southwest to find Leo the Lion setting. Leo is the one that looks like a backward question mark with a triangle behind it. To Leo’s left is Virgo. Virgo is notable right now for the bright point of Saturn that is hovering close to one of Virgo’s stars, Porrima. Virgo's brightest star, Spica, is to Saturn's lower left.

Virgo is the second largest constellation in the sky. The largest constellation is also visible in spring, lying just below Virgo. Hydra the Water Snake slithers above the horizon and below both Virgo and Leo. But between Virgo and Hydra, Crater the Cup and Corvus the Crow are two small constellations that sit on the Water Snake’s back.

Above Virgo and a little left is a bright star named Arcturus, part of the constellation Bootes, which looks a bit like a giant kite with legs. Looking left (southeast) of Virgo, we hit another Zodiac constellation, Libra the Scales. Libra is rather small and dark, making it hard to see, but the constellation to its left, rising above the horizon, is much easier to pick out. This is Scorpius (not Scorpio, that's an astrology term), with its front pinchers on the right and its tail curving down toward Earth. Depending on how late you are out, you may also see Sagittarius rising above the southeastern horizon with its distinctive teapot shape.

Finally, looking east, the summer constellations are rising mid-evening. Lyra, Cygnus, and Cepheus, the constellations home to the three stars that make up the Summer Triangle, are all above the horizon by the time the sky gets dark.

While those are not all the constellations visible at the moment, they are some of the more important ones. I didn't mention the constellations in the north, because they are the same all year. The north circumpolar constellations rotate around the north star and parts or all of them never set as seen from the northern hemisphere.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Astronomy: Taking Photos of the Night Sky

5-20-11 Auriga KKW

For many years I have been wanting to take pictures of the night sky where you can actually see something in them other than the moon or a bright planet in the sun's fading glow. I know that there are really only two components necessary for night-sky scenery shots: a tripod and a camera that allows you to hold the shutter open. I've had the tripod for a very long time, but since the advent of digital cameras, I haven't had a camera that understands that I want to let all that light in.

I bought an SLR camera in November and had only tried taking it outside a couple nights since then. The weather has been too cold that my fingers become numb as I'm fumbling with the camera and trying to figure out the setting I need to get the shutter open. The camera was still trying to focus on something it couldn’t really see in the dark and not allowing me to depress the shutter button.

Wednesday night was finally a good night for observing. Fifty degrees feels pretty warm after a long, cold winter. I took out my new telescope and got in some quick observing of Saturn before the full moon rose above the horizon. The moon was beautiful and orange, rising in the direction of the airport and hiding in a crisscross pattern of contrails, so I thought it might be nice to grab a photo. I got my camera and took a couple shots, then tried for night sky pics, but again the camera was confused trying to focus in and out on what it couldn't see. That's when I had my epiphany.

My mother gave me a camera lens that she bought years ago for her Nikon camera. Soon after she bought it, digital cameras became in vogue and she gave up her old camera for a new one. The extra lens had been sitting around gathering dust so she let me take it because it fit on my digital SLR Nikon. I had tried the lens on a number of occasions but it didn't automatically focus and my eyesight is not the best, so when I thought something was focused through the lens, I would later find out that it was fuzzy when I uploaded the photos to my computer.

Because the camera with this lens on doesn't automatically focus, I thought maybe it would allow me to take pictures where the other lens did not. I attached the old lens, got out my tripod, manually set the focus to infinity, and set up to take some pictures. Lo and behold, it worked. I still don't know if I'd be able to correctly replicate my good fortunate again, but at least I had one night of success. (Especially because, in the dark, I thought I had set the camera to the no flash setting and when I got back in the house I discovered it was actually on the sport setting, which allows the shutter to fire off pictures more quickly, the exact opposite of what I expected to use.)

5-20-11 Big Dipper KKW
The Big Dipper.

I managed to capture the Big Dipper (which was right overhead by the roof of my house), Leo the Lion, Virgo with Saturn, Lyra, Auriga, and Gemini with Canis Minor. My favorite photos were those which included terrestrial scenery, but because the moon was coming up on the eastern horizon, it kind of limited the areas I could photograph in. The photos I'm sharing here are three of my favorites. In the photo of the Big Dipper, you can easily see the double star of Mizar and Alcor in the Dipper's handle. The photo of Auriga shows the bright star Capella and how it is truly a different color (orangish) compared to the other stars in the constellation (which almost forms a J shape). (Note also the streak of light in the distance, which is a farmer doing some spring plowing by the light of the full moon.)

5-20-11 Gemini KKW
Gemini. Photos by Kelly Kizer Whitt.

The last picture is of the western horizon where Gemini the Twins was setting. You can see the twin stars near the top: Pollux on the left and Castor on the right. Again, notice the color difference highlighted by an exposure that was merely a few seconds long. Pollux is a yellow-orange giant and Castor is a hot, bluish-white star. Pollux's body is easy to make out, looking just like a stick figure, and I imagine the two brothers as having their arms around each other's shoulders. At the bottom left of the image is Canis Minor, a dog formed by two stars, the bright Procyon and fainter Gomeisa. As you can see, the clouds were moving in from the west, and it was time to call it a night. I can't wait until the next clear night so that I can try it again.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Year in Yosemite: Farm Animal

One day last week, my husband, my daughter Karis and I were taking a walk down the road by our house in Yosemite National Park when we came across a family of deer happily munching on grass. "Oh," sighed Karis. "Don't you wish we were like the deer and could find food so easily? Then we wouldn't have the hassle of driving to Oakhurst."

Being the annoying kind of parents that can't let any innocent comment go untouched, my husband pointed out that when it snows, the deer don't find it easy either. While I felt it necessary to take things to a whole new level by talking about how the Indian peoples who lived in the Yosemite area for 10,000 years were able to collect two year's worth of acorns — their main food source — in just two weeks.* My husband and I may have been busy turning a simple walk into a series of teaching moments, but in my heart of hearts, my daughter had me. Why did we have to drive over an hour round-trip down to Oakhurst at least once a week (and make the three-hour round-trip to Fresno at least once a month for all-important, happiness-sustaining visits to Trader Joe's and Costco)?

Shortly thereafter, I went to a party where a female ranger and a ranger's wife were rhapsodizing about "the box" — a once-a-week delivery of organic fruits and vegetables that comes right to your door (thanks to a community-organized pick-up system). The produce comes from T&D Willey Farms, a Madera-based community-supported-agriculture farm that supplies everyone from Alice Waters at Chez Panisse to, well, my neighbors. That all sounded fine, in fact very impressive, but, in truth, it was the women's clear eyes and perfect skin that made me come home and immediately order the box. (We'll ignore the fact that they are both twenty-plus years younger than I am.)

Yose_farm1 This week we had our first box experience. Peeling back the wrapper with the excitement of children on Christmas morning, we discovered sugar snap peas, summer crisp lettuce, red chard, spring onions, parsley, Camerosa strawberries and a vegetable called kohlrabi that looked like a Dr. Seuss design. Now what to do? We had one week to make use of everything in the box or be deluged with more. I felt like Lucy Ricardo at the chocolate factory.

The sugar snap peas and strawberries were easy. My daughter took them to school for snacks. We're salad freaks, so we dispensed of the lettuce quickly and I make chard tacos just about every week, so that had a purpose, too. Then there was the kohlrabi. Having never seen it before, I didn't have a clue how to cook it. I went on-line for recipes, then resorted to the advice of other "box" users — when all else fails, roast it — which is exactly what we did. Separating the greens from the bulbs, I threw them in with the spring onion, sprinkled it with Spike (my one cooking necessity, I'm hopeless in the kitchen without it), then poured on the olive oil. When everything crisped up, my daughter and I stood over the pan and shoveled the results in our mouths, oohing and aahing the whole time. Yose_farm2

Then we turned our attention to the bulbs. Their exterior skin is tough and sinewy. Four knives, a cleaver and a vegetable peeler later, we finally wrestled them to the ground, leaving us with something soft enough to be cut into slices, sprinkled with Spike, (I don’t own stock, I promise), and covered with enough olive oil to keep a small fleet of biofuel cars going for a week. The result was lip-smacking delicious.

But here's the thing. Had I been a Miwok Indian living in Yosemite Valley, I would have fallen into the category of cooks who removed the nasty tasting tannin in their acorns by burying them whole in mud for several months. I am not a labor-intensive-type of chef. No removing the acorn hulls, grinding the meat into flour and endless leaching for me. I want to be like a deer, just scratching for food on the ground outside my door.

Maybe that's why I can't stop perusing the newsletter that accompanies "the box." Seems that eggs, milk, cheese, stone fruit, meat, olive oil, coffee, rice, juice and nuts can also be delivered to one's door. And while I love the ease of that as well as the whole organic, grass-fed, family-farm, simple life vibe, I'm hoping that if they send another vegetable like kohlrabi, they send Alice Waters too.

*The Natural World of the California Indians, Robert Heizer and Albert Elsasser, University of California Press, pgs. 95,96

(Photos courtesy T&D Willey Farms.)

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city. (Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)


Astronomy: Somewhere over the Rainbow

5-13-11 Rho Ophiuchi Adam Block KPNO NOAO AURA NSF The Rho Ophiuchi region hosts a rainbow of colors. Credit: Adam Block, KPNO, NOAO, AURA, NSF

One of the most beautiful celestial objects for astrophotographers to capture is the Rho Ophiuchi region. This area around a star in Ophiuchus bursts with a kaleidoscope of color. The blue is the result of a reflection nebula while the red and yellow tones come from emission nebula. The white glow of the stars also contrasts with the black of thick gas and dust where light cannot penetrate.

Every color of the rainbow can be found in space, from aurora dancing at the edges of our own planet to objects millions of light years away. The colors of Rho Ophiuchi are best seen through images like the one here, but there are many objects observers can view to check out the colors of the universe. While many objects are often called red, such as Mars and the Great Red Spot, they are both more of an orangey color than true red. Nebulae are often red, such as the Lagoon Nebula, M8, in Sagittarius.

Orange belongs to the objects mentioned above, but there are plenty of other examples, including the lovely Flame Nebula. Yellow and blue are two colors that are seen best when they contrast with each other. Albireo is a double star in Cygnus that I’ve discussed here before. Another example of a yellow-and-blue object would be the galaxies in M51.

Green is a bit trickier to see. Aurorae can be green, along with the green flash of a setting sun and the bluish green tone on Uranus. As for a deep-sky object with a green hue, the Cat’s Eye Nebula is one of the best examples.

One of my favorite purplish-colored space objects is the Witch Head Nebula. All space objects tend to look less vibrant with your own eyes as compared to photographs. A confusing aspect of looking at images of space objects is that they are often photographed in false color to highlight differences that astronomers are trying to study. Therefore, the Cat’s Eye Nebula appears in one Hubble image as bright red with green tips or as a lovely blue with tinges of other colors in a different Hubble photo. But if you view the Cat’s Eye Nebula through a backyard telescope, you’ll most likely see a bluish-green nebula. Remember that everyone’s eyes are sensitive to light differently, so for some people the colorful universe can look a bit gray. 

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

Nature Art: Poppies in Casein Paint

Casein paint is old...very old. The ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France were painted with casein. Casein paint combines milk with dry pigment (such as iron ore or charcoal in the case of the cave paintings) to make paint. Nowadays, we can find casein paint in all colors, and it is an inexpensive alternative to painting in acrylics or gouache. Casein is water-soluble, so clean-up is easy. After a few weeks, you can buff the surface of a casein painting with a soft cloth to bring up a natural shine. Here's my palette with casein paint -- you can see I used a paper plate to lay out my colors and mix them.

The poppies are out! The summers are too humid here in Maryland to count on poppies returning from year to year, so it's exciting when they do. This year, some returned in time for Mothers' Day. I drew them over and over in my sketchbook. The strange angles of the stems and the flower buds fascinated me, no two the same:

I squeezed out the colors I thought I'd need -- plus white -- onto a paper plate. I could also have used a white glass or ceramic plate, but my plates are all shades of blue. If I were painting over several days, I'd have used a dedicated plastic or glass palette, keeping the paint moist by laying plastic over the palette and taping it closed. I set out a container of water and a clean rag (a paper towel will also work), and I chose a large and a small stiff brush. Casein is a buttery paint, fun to move around on a painting, and I need stiff brushes to do that. Watercolor brushes are too soft.

Casein dries fast, but not as fast as acrylic paint. I had time to blend the paint with water and my brush. When I made a mistake, I let the paint dry and then used full-strength casein (not diluted with water) to paint the correction. Here is the casein painting, about 8 by 6 inches:

Stephen Quiller, in his book Watermedia Painting, does beautiful work in casein. His colorful paintings of the Rocky Mountains inspired me to try this medium, and you can see them on his website. Not many manufacturers make casein; in fact, I've only found the Shiva brand through an online art supply store, such as Dick Blick. But, they are inexpensive and well worth the shipping cost to give them a try. I hope you do!

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

The Great Outdoors Is a Classroom

Larry Volpe 2

Imagine taking more than a dozen fifth-graders on their first camping trip. Now imagine doing that without a car.

That's what Larry Volpe did during his second year of teaching. "I took five trips on my bike to buy all the food," he says. Luckily, soon after that first expedition with his students, he discovered the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program. Larry, a teacher from San Jose, California, has been a 12-year volunteer with ICO, which coordinates more than 800 annual trips for thousands of young people -- many are at-risk youth -- from cities across the country. Since starting in the program, Larry has led about one trip a month.

Larry Volpe 3

But Larry's students do more than just visit parks, and their learning experiences goes beyond the textbook. Entering his classroom is like walking into a nature museum: pine cones, antlers, "jars and jars of specimens," an aquarium of bugs and dragonflies. When they aren't inside, Larry and his students are working on the school garden.

"Living in inner city San Jose, my students don't have access to wild places," he says. "In college, I had two professors who took us on weekend camping adventures to study botany and entomology. Field trips were the funnest part of learning. I knew I wanted this as part of my own students' learning experiences."

Larry Volpe

In November, Larry won the Natural Teachers Award for San Francisco Bay Area teachers, from the Children & Nature Network. The top prize included a trip to the Galapagos Islands for Larry and his wife.

"Nothing you see -- all the videos I've watched since childhood -- can prepare you for this place," he says. "It is a wildlife lover's paradise."

Larry's goal isn't just to inspire his kids to get out of the house and appreciate nature. He knows as well as anyone that today's kids are the decision makers of the future. Larry's lessons shape his kids' viewpoints on nature. His students often continue their outdoor adventures, and some take up gardening. These kids, Volpe says, might hold political office someday, or run a business. Whether it's polluting or it's clean and green might depend on their present-day experiences. Visit the Inner City Outings program for more information.

-- Brian Foley & Tom Valtin


Year in Yosemite: Animal Kingdom

Photo credit: Chad Andrews

Rumor has it that there are 230 species of birds and 80 species of mammals in Yosemite National Park. After living here for 18-plus months, I'd like to ask, "Exactly where?" Because while it's true that on any given day, I might see mule deer, gray squirrels, and an occasional coyote, everything else seems to have headed for the hills — or at least that's the theory. Naturalists working in the park claim that in a space the size of Rhode Island, the animals can't be bothered hanging out around people. According to them, except for black bears looking for easy pickings, most of the animals live in remote areas where there's little chance of human interaction. To which I say, "Hogwash." In the past 18 months, I've seen plenty of wildlife. It's just that none of it has been inside the park.

Ask me where you should go for the best animal viewing and I'd send you off to hang out on Highway 41. Going into Fresno about once a week, I've become fairly obsessed with the red-tailed hawks that seem to sit on every lamppost heading out of town. The farmland may be disappearing but their presence — with their nests stuck onto telephone poles just yards from the road — seems to say, this is still our country.

Same for the golden eagles. The first one I saw was a fledgling hiding in the grass not ten feet from my car. The first one my husband saw was on his way down to Oakhurst from the park. As most readers know, Yosemite is not my husband's favorite place. That he's here is a testament to his devotion to his daughter and our love for her park school. But one day, when his feelings of isolation were at their height, a golden eagle flew along with him as he made his way down the hill, holding itself at window height for about 100 yards. I, at least, took this as a cosmic sign that we were in the right place.

Photo credit: Charles Phillips

On that same road we've seen beaver, deer, and bobcats. Then a few weeks ago, right outside of Oakhurst, I hit the animal jackpot. A huge, enormous bear ran across the road directly in front of my car. I was far enough away to miss it, but close enough to gasp with delight and grab the arm of my passenger while yelling, "A bear. A bear. My first bear."

Now I know there are bears in Yosemite. I know this because when you travel the roads of the park, there are yellow signs painted with red bears and the message "Speed kills." I doubt many visitors to Yosemite know these signs mark the place where a bear was taken out by a car. The signs appear fairly frequently along the roadside, so while I haven't actually seen a bear in the park, I know they are here, along with mountain lions, which many of my neighbors have seen right in my neighborhood. So far, no viewings for me. I'm hoping to keep it that way (unless I'm in the safety of a car).

When Galen Clark became the first guardian of Yosemite in the 1860s, he wrote extensively about the abundance of game — beavers, raccoons, opossum, deer, bear, fox, coyote, mountain lions, and big horn sheep. I've seen several of these species in the backyard of my home in Los Angeles, but never here. To see them in the Sierras, take my advice: stake out a viewing spot along Highway 41.

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city. (Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)


Astronomy Day 2011

Crescent Moon Lisa-wwskies-SXC The Crescent Moon. Credit: Lisa/WWSkies/SXC

This year, Astronomy Day was moved from April, where it has been Earth Day’s neighbor, to the first Saturday in May. There are a number of ways for you to celebrate, from visiting a planetarium or observatory to reading a good astronomy book. But the best way, of course, is to go outside on Saturday night, gaze at the stars, and invite others to join you.

Saturday, May 7, was a good choice for Astronomy Day (or Night). After sunset, you can find a slim crescent moon setting in the west. The crescent moon is the best target for any telescope because its nearness to us allows us to see stark relief in the lunar mountains and valleys. The moon is positioned between the twins of Gemini and above Orion and Taurus, which will set before the moon. Once you’ve explored the contours of the moon, shift your telescope to the upper left to find the center of the constellation Cancer. A star cluster known as the Beehive is the highlight of this region. Tracing this path through the Zodiac constellations farther back on the sky we come to the backward question-mark shape of Leo the Lion with its bright star Regulus, and behind Leo is the next dazzling telescopic target, Saturn. On the evening of May 7, Saturn will be just over a degree away from Porrima, a 3.4-magnitude star in Virgo. Through a telescope, you’ll see that a magnitude 5.9 star is even closer, halfway between Saturn and Porrima.

A telescope should allow you to easily spot Saturn’s rings and perhaps its largest moon as well, Titan. Titan is the only known satellite with a substantial atmosphere, and it’s also host to liquid methane and ethane lakes and wind and rain. Its surface temperature feels like a frigid -240 degrees Fahrenheit. If the weather here on Earth is cloudy or rainy for Saturday, try Friday or Sunday, for similar views of a crescent moon and Saturn.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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